We need to give more consideration to Haley Lu Richardson. The pint-sized 27-year-old has done little besides good work since 2016’s The Bronze, where her dance background prepared her to play an aspiring Olympic gymnast. Since then, she has lit things up as Hailee Steinfeld’s best friend in The Edge of Seventeen, a breastaurant waitress in Support the Girls, a lover of architecture in Columbus, and a cystic fibrosis patient in Five Feet Apart, a teen weeper that she almost single-handedly dragged to greatness. (With all this, you’re most likely to have seen her in a relatively unrewarding role as a slasher victim in Split.) She blows with gale force through Montana Story, and her performance is the most memorable thing about this indie drama that plays at the AMC theaters at Parks Mall and Grapevine Mills this weekend.
The story takes place at a remote ranch where Cal (Owen Teague) is visiting his father (Rob Story), who has suffered a debilitating stroke. When his older sister Erin (Richardson) also comes by unannounced, Cal is surprised and not entirely pleased, since he hasn’t spoken to her or heard anything since 18-year-old Erin ran away from home seven years ago. He’s settling the debt-ridden estate, and when Erin hears that he plans to have their horse — a black stallion named Mr. T who’s Erin’s age — destroyed, she calls him a killer and resolves to take Mr. T back home, which turns out to be upstate New York.
This film is by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, the duo who have sporadically turned out movies about a wide range of subjects from children of divorce (What Maisie Knew) to a parent covering up a murder (The Deep End). This makes them difficult to categorize, and they don’t bring a great deal of distinctiveness to their films, although this one has some grand vistas of the Treasure State photographed by their cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, who makes even an abandoned pit mine look impressive. It’s almost enough to make you overlook the heavily workshopped nature of the story — haven’t we seen enough dramas where the main character’s trauma is kept hidden from us until the climactic moment.
It’s Richardson who powers this movie through its weaker spots, as Erin arrives back in Montana being curt to everyone around her, offering no response when Cal tells her about his life working at an engineering firm in Cheyenne and continually trying to find cellular service to call her workplace, a farm-to-table restaurant where she’s a line cook. Erin’s afraid of her father even in his vegetative state, and after she saves his life during a power outage, she directs all her rage at Cal over his inaction that one night when her dad almost killed her. Teague gives a fine performance here, but he’s obliterated by Richardson’s controlled fury and hard-bitten will to survive that comes from growing up in such a severe place and with such a bad man for a parent. Montana Story gives her a role quite different from any she has played yet, and I can’t help feeling there’s more where this magnificent performance came from.